From cheapies that can just about handle HD to 4K monsters, we’ll help you navigate the terrain.

Sure, flashy lighting and transparent panels help advertise the gear inside your system, but they can sometimes also be configured to convey information, such as fan speed or component temperature, or to indicate which custom profile is loaded. And this particular MSI motherboard displays the internal temperature. (Origin PC Millennium)

Lori Grunin/CNET

In all my decades of offering buying advice, Windows desktop PC recommendations have always been among the hardest, at least beyond the basic stream-video-and-surf-the-web systems. And gaming PCs rank one of the most difficult of the difficult, at least if you’re in the 99% for whom cost matters. There are just too many choices, with too many permutations.

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Origin PC Millennium Best for take-all-my-money 4K, HDR performance Starts at $2,038 See at Origin PC
HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop The cheapest option Starts at $700 See at HP
Alienware Aurora R8 Best for 1080p or under $1,000 Starts at $800 See at Alienware
Digital Storm Bolt X Best for 1440p gaming in style Starts at $1,602 See at Digital Storm
Falcon Northwest Talon / Tiki Best for the artful gamer Starts at $2,020 See at Falcon Northwest
CyberpowerPC Gamer Xtreme VR Alternate $800 option Starts at $800 See at Amazon
Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop 5680 Alternate $1,000 option Starts at $999 See at Dell

It’s all about tradeoffs. Every game uses system resources — processor (CPU), graphics processor (GPU), memory (RAM), storage —  differently, and often horribly inefficiently. You can’t even count on resource usage consistency across a specific game genre, such as first-person shooter (FPS) or platformer, because optimization levels can vary wildly. Gaming (and content-creation) PCs are the angry toddlers of consumer electronics: they are loud, willful, require constant supervision and just when you think they’re under control, they veer off into crazytown.

I’ll admit, I’m waving my hands a bit here: these are not recommendations for specific systems, more for ballpark configurations and suggestions of the manufacturers or system builders with a specific case design that you should consider in various scenarios. (And when it’s time to sweat the details, User Benchmark is a great site for getting a sense of performance deltas between different components.)

If you want a little more guidance beyond these recommendations, scroll down to the end of the story. And note that this is not my final word; this story will evolve over time.

The cheapest option: HP Pavilion Gaming 790 Desktop

HPHP’s Pavilion Gaming Desktop is its compact, spare-me-the-flashiness model, targeting the same “casual” gamer as Dell’s Inspiron Gaming or Acer’s Nitro lines, but a lot more understated. This $750 base model should provide at least the minimum you need to play relatively undemanding games in 1080p without poking your eyes out with a stick: i5-8400 with Optane to accelerate disk operations with the 1TB hard disk a little, a GTX 1050 and 8GB of RAM. That’s about what you get in a budget gaming laptop. It’s got a ton of connections on the front, though — four USB-A, one USB-C and an SD card slot.

Another option that’s a little more powerful for just a little more dough, CyberpowerPC’s Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A5) is aggressively priced for its components — for $800, you get a GTX 1060 and additional 120GB SSD over the HP. That little nudge in specs may be enough to tip performance into the acceptable range for some games. (See on Amazon)

But if you want to go even cheaper, there’s a $650 Ryzen 5 2400G option with an RX 580 graphics card (see on Amazon), but I don’t think that will hit 60fps too comfortably.


Alternate budget option: CyberpowerPC’s Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A5)

Another option that’s a little more powerful for just a little more dough, CyberpowerPC’s Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A5) is aggressively priced for its components — for $800, you get a GTX 1060 and additional 120GB SSD over the HP. That little nudge in specs may be enough to tip performance into the acceptable range for some games.


Best for 1080p or under $1,000: Alienware Aurora R8

AlienwareFor less than a grand, you won’t get terrific performance from this midsize desktop — well, midsize for a gaming system — but you should be able to get more than 60fps in 1080p on action-oriented (i.e., not full of big-texture, detailed graphics) games. The chassis not only has a lot of connectors, it has a relative bounty of them in the front — one USB-C and three USB-A.

The $800 base configuration includes an i5-9400, 8GB RAM, a Radeon RX 560X and a 1TB hard drive. If you can afford it, I really recommend going with an SSD instead, even though it’s much smaller capacities; Windows reallly does run faster. You can always get an inexpensive external hard drive for near-line storage. You may also want to spend a little more for the 2×2 Wi-Fi networking card.

However, if you’re just looking to blast through 1080p and can spend more, upgrade to a GTX 1660 Ti (a plain 1660 would be fine, too, but it’s not an option), 16GB of RAM and/or a 512GB SSD. Those should also bump your performance level up to decent 1440p performance on some games.


Alternate sub-$1,000 pick: Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop 5680

An under-$1,000 alternative is Dell’s Inspiron Gaming Desktop 5680, which packs more power for $999, including an i7-8700, 16GB of memory, a 128GB SSD + 2TB hard drive and a GTX 1060. Alienware is a sub-brand of Dell, so it’s all in the family, but I don’t like the case design nearly as much.


Best for 1440p gaming in style: Digital Storm Bolt X

Digital StormWhile HD (1,920×1,080) is still the most popular gaming resolution, 1440p (also referred to as 2K for its 2,560×1,440 resolution) is sl-o-o-o-o-wly starting to rise in popularity. A 1440p-capable system has the side benefit of allowing for smooth 1080p play at a higher quality as well, so even if you’re not ready to play in 1440p, you can think of it as future-proofing.

The GTX 1660 Ti is a solid choice here, and coupling it with an overclocked i5-9600K, 16GB 3,000MHz RAM and a 1TB SSD should give you great 1080p frame rates and decent 1440p at high quality. It’s not cheap at $2,162 for the setup, but it’s reasonable for the components as well as Digital Storm’s gorgeous and compact Bolt X case (though not as small as the never-materialized Project Spark) , plus moral support in the company’s relatively active on-site forums.

Plus, you can’t yet get the 1660 Ti through more mainstream channels, so with a big manufacturer you’ll end up either downgrading or upgrading. But it’ll take about three weeks for them to build it.


Best for the artful gamer: Falcon Northwest Tiki and Talon

Falcon NorthwestFalcon Northwest specializes in blazingly fast systems wrapped in custom paint jobs. The Tiki is its most compact system, yet you can cram up to a top-of-the-line i9-9900K and GeForce RTX 2080 Ti into it.

The Talon, on the other hand, has the design of a mundane midtower, but that means it can pack in a lot of high-end components, including an 18-core i9-9980XE and dual RTX 2080 Ti cards (or dual Quadro P6000s). And once you customize the chassis it’s not so mundane anymore.

Unfortunately, you’re stuck with the onboard audio and networking for some of the configurations, like the i9-9900K/dual RTX 2080 Ti we just tested, and of course, get ready to throw wads of cash at it. You do get personalized service, though the website is noticeably devoid of support information — all you get is the hardcopy documentation and media arranged in a binder — and FNW doesn’t have its own command center software.


Best for take-all-my-money 4K, HDR performance: Origin PC and other boutique builders

Sarah Tew/CNETIf you’re going for maximum performance or maximum configurability, then go boutique. You can get fast systems for the same breathtaking prices from companies like Alienware, but they’re a little more cookie cutter (though it feels odd to call anything that looks like the Area-51 “cookie cutter”), tend to be more conservatively tuned, and when you drop $10,000 on a system, you’re still just a drop in the bucket for Dell’s business.

In addition to the extra care, boutique sites like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm and so on are a lot more transparent about the components you’re choosing — none more extreme than Origin PC, where your choices get pretty granular. In addition to picking the brand and speed of memory and power supply, which is typical, you choose which motherboard you want and what color the cover for the power supply cables should be.

Being able to choose the motherboard rather than just the chipset can be important; they all have their quirks, lighting schemes (I love the visual of the MSI Z390 Godlike we had in the Millennium we tested) and connector differences, for example.

And if you want reliable, smooth 4K gaming, especially with HDR tossed in, you’re going to need at least an i9-9900K and RTX 2080 Ti. Probably two 2080 Tis if you want a side of ray tracing with that.

Origin PC’s cases aren’t the prettiest on the outside, though you can get custom paint jobs and laser etching to bling them up, but they’re well designed — easy to open and work inside — and what you see through the transparent side panels looks great. And you can get ’em big: the Millennium is the second-largest case option and it still intimidated all the other desktops on the lab bench.

Digital Storm also has thoughtfully designed cases. I love the Aventum Xwhich has perks such as quick-disconnect fittings on the cooling tubes so you can actually get your hands in to swap components. Plus, it’s a sleek standing slab with cool lighting schemes that really give off the Tron vibe.

Origin PC is serious about its shipping.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As you configure, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • For whichever CPU you buy, get the latest generation available. It’s usually indicated by by the first digit of the CPU model name;  in this case, that means eighth – or ninth-generation for Intel Core i (such as  i7-9700K, a ninth-gen processor) and second generation for AMD Ryzen (e.g., Ryzen 7 2700). That may or may not still be true once we see a subsequent generation of either, but for now, there have been noticeable performance increases from the previous generations.
  • A “gaming system” is effectively defined by its use of a discrete graphics processor, which, for the moment at least, means AMD Radeon or NvidiaGeForce graphics. So it (should) go without saying that you should avoid dirt-cheap configurations with integrated GPUs (iGPUs). However, if the best can afford right now is an iGPU-based system, make sure it either has sufficient slot space and power supply for a GPU upgrade. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 ports on desktops are pretty scarce, so attaching an external GPU (eGPU) at some point in the future
  • Figure out what kind of tech support client you are. Do you waste hours banging away at a problem, scouring the web for help, rather than contacting the company — guilty! — or do you want humans available to you to quickly help smooth over the rough patches? Big manufacturers usually have active user forums scattered around the web for user-to-user help and knowledge-bases with some troubleshooting help; boutique builders, not so much, because you’re paying a premium for more personal human help and because the configurations are highly customized.
Sarah Tew/CNET
  • Before you start configuring, think about what your most frequently played games are and check out forums to figure out whether their performance depends on a gazillion-core CPU or eats GPU cycles. Can they take noticeable advantage of 4K resolution, or do they look the same as in HD, just with an unplayably large drop in frame rate?
  • On the flip side, don’t get hung up too much on frame rates past a certain point: if you look at the numbers across a variety of benchmarks and game types, you do get a sense of the relative power of one configuration over another. But your goal is smooth gameplay — depending upon the game and your monitor’s capabilities, that can vary from a minimum of 60fps to 240fps or more — at a quality level that pleases you and that fits within your budget. The Falcon Northwest and Origin PC systems I’ve tested most recently have given me over 200fps in 4K running Doom because that game takes advantage of the dual GPUs in it. But I’d be dying just as spectacularly at 120fps in 1440p (2,560×1,440) and have learned I would gladly exchange some of those frames for more stability in Adobe’s applications.


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